The author was only 20 when she won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for this lurid first novel, which will raise a few eyebrows stateside as well.
Narrator Lui (“for Louis Vuitton”) opens by relating her encounter with Ama, who has a forked tongue gotten through piercing followed by cutting, a process he’s happy to describe in skin-crawling detail. Lui, who’s already got enormous holes in her ear lobes, likes the idea of more pain, and when, for her initial tongue-piercing, Ama takes her to Desire, “a kind of punk/alternative store,” she finds, in proprietor Shiba-san, someone happy to inflict it. Soon Lui is living with Ama, something of a wimp with her but tough enough to beat a man to death on the street and to have sadomasochistic sex with Shiba-san on the side. Kanehara’s flat-affect portrait of teenagers operating totally outside traditional Japanese social constraints is both shocking and, from time to time, oddly touching: after telling Lui that “seeing you suffer makes me so hard,” Shiba-san asks her to be his girlfriend, adding, “if we did get together, it would be with marriage in mind.” The particulars are Japanese, but Lui’s declaration, “I wanted to live recklessly and leave nothing but ashes in this dark, dull world,” is the cry of alienated youth anywhere. Like the narrator, we grow oddly fond of her two messed-up guys, both emotionally pathetic but extremely dangerous. A bloody denouement and Lui’s passive acceptance of it prove more disturbing than might be expected, given the story's brevity and deadpan delivery of the grossest facts. There’s a peculiar, haunting beauty to her final question as she backs off from completing the tongue forking: “Was this really what I had been chasing after? A useless, empty hole surrounded by raw flesh glistening with spittle?”
Fascinating and unnerving, though it’s hard to see where Kanehara can go further with such material.